Bread – Self-Denial

August 7, 2013


Readings for Wednesday, August 7, designated by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer: 2 Sam. 9:1-13; Acts 19:1-10; Mark 8:34-9:1; Psalms 81,82,119:97-120

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In our reading today from Mark, Jesus tells the disciples “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” Mk. 8:34

What does it mean to “deny himself?” What does it mean to engage in “self-denial?”

The way this is often described in sermons is to engage in ascetic behavior, taking a vow of poverty, giving away your stuff, and other similar behaviors, even to the point of harming oneself physically.

Does “deny himself” mean you have to give up your stuff? I don’t think so.

I think denial of self goes much deeper than giving up your stuff. One can give up everything, torture the body, live in absolute squalor, and still have a hardened heart toward God, his neighbor, and even himself. Pride can exist throughout poverty and wealth, at all stages of life and in all circumstances. Covetousness can exist throughout poverty and wealth, at all stages of life and in all circumstances. Hatred of neighbor can exist throughout poverty and wealth, at all stages of life and in all circumstances.

Furthermore I think denial of self goes much deeper than saying “Jesus is first” and “I am second.” Denial of self does include, in part, a recognition that God is God and I am not He, but I may still realize this and yet still have hardness of heart, still have hatred of neighbor, still have a desire for more wealth, more power, more of everything. In fact, I may go so far as to try to enlist God on my side to achieve that wealth, power, everything. So, in and of itself, recognition that God is on first is not self-denial.

I think denial of self means giving up the right to stuff. It means giving up the right to have it our way, even partially. It means giving up the right to be free. It means giving ourselves over to Christ. Living in Christ means that we have recognized that there is no part of us which is adequate before a Holy God. It means giving up those rights, first to God and second to our neighbor. It means that we demand nothing because we are not important; Christ is important.

When we give up our rights, we acknowledge that who we are, what we are, and what we have does not belong to us. Oh, we might possess and enjoy all these things, but we hold them loosely because we know that they are not ours.

In our reading from Samuel today, we have the history of David and Mephibosheth, the lame son of Jonathan, son of Saul, who David defeated to become king. David restores all of the lands and property of Saul to Mephibosheth, meaning that Mephibosheth had great wealth. David tells Mephibosheth that he will always eat at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons. The story ends with Mephibosheth eating always at the king’s table, even though he could have easily lived on the fat of his own property.

Did Mephibosheth deny himself and his rights to eat at the king’s table? In a real sense, “yes,” because he ignored his great wealth in order to eat at the king’s table. Although he owned his lands, the fact is that David the king gave him those lands and could easily take them away. But did Mephibosheth live a good life? Of course he did; he ate at the king’s table.

In order to eat at King Jesus’ table we have to deny ourselves. We have to be like Mephibosheth. We have to deny our “rights” and instead accept the gift of grace offered by God to us in His sovereign will.

But Jesus says we must also “take up [a] cross.” We normally think of taking something on, but I think it is just the other half of the coin of self-denial. The reason it is the other half of the coin is this – how easy is it to give up our rights and to trust Jesus completely, unwaveringly, without hesitation or doubt? Not easy at all.

The most interesting part of this is how God works. Like Jesus said, “whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Mk. 8:35.

Denial of self is, in God’s economy, acceptance of our true self, as adopted sons of the Father through the finished work of Jesus Christ on His cross. And isn’t that just wonderful!

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© 2013 GBF

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